An Interview with Sam Pinansky, Founder and President of New Light Novel Streaming Service J-Novel Club

Yesterday, along with many others, I was surprised to learn of a new publisher entering the Japanese media publishing business in the West. J-Novel Club launches today as a new tiered subscription service for something Western fans have been lacking for a while: digital light novels. Companies such as Yen Press and Vertical, Inc. have recently been finding much success in the Western market releasing print and digital versions of popular light novel series, but neither have offered a weekly-updating streaming service for the medium in the same manner Crunchyroll has for anime. J-Novel Club seeks to fill this void with digital releases available for members (and a couple of previews to sample for non-subscribers!) on a weekly basis, readable from your digital devices. The service launches with four titles: Occultic;Nine, Brave Chronicle: The RuinmakerMy Big Sister Lives in a Fantasy World, and My Little Sister Can Read Kanji, with more to come. To talk about J-Novel Club, founder and president of the company, Sam Pinansky, spoke with me in an exclusive interview.

Hello Sam, and thanks for taking the time to speak with us!

Let me answer your questions! Thanks for the opportunity.

First off, let’s start from the beginning: when and how did the idea to start a digital light novel publishing project first come to you?

I started noticing the demand from fans since the start of light novel based anime like Sword Art Online, GATE, and Danmachi.  But it wasn't until last last year when I really started to try and come up with a new business model that could work.  I took inspiration from what the fans had started to do on their own, as well as the more traditional models for book publishing, and tried to create a service that could bootstrap itself as well as create a solid foundation for long term growth.

There have been fans in the West hoping for legal and wider access to light novels for some time, and both anime and manga have seen an advent in digital releases for several years. What made you decide to launch the service at this point in time?

There is clearly a growing demand for light novel releases in English, mainly driven by successful anime adaptations. We hope that fans will take a chance with more light novels and find out how fun they can be to read!  

The timing was basically: how soon can we make this happen?  The demand will only continue to grow.

In the press release, you mentioned a partnership with Japanese publishers Hobby Japan and OVERLAP. How has it been working with Japanese publishers? Would you be likely to work with additional publishers in the future?

I have a lot of experience working with Japanese rights holders directly, and both live and work in Tokyo.  Using my connections and our innovative business model, I'm really proud of Hobby Japan and OVERLAP for taking the risk of partnering with a new venture like J-Novel Club, as it takes courage for a Japanese business to do that.  Of course, we don't plan on stopping there, we are in active negotiations with 4-5 other publishers to increase our lineup!  There's actually way more content than we could ever hope to translate out there.

For light novel fans in the West right now, the primary option for legal English light novels has been through physical releases by publishers such as Yen Press. What would you say are the benefits of your digital service compared to other western publishers?

By going digital only, we are able to start and support the release of many more series at one time than if we relied on physical book sales and distribution.  The start up costs and risk associated with printing is just too high, which is one of the reasons I think no one else except manga publishers has attempted to enter the print market more than 1 or 2 books a year.  For those of you hoping for print releases, the best thing I can say is to support our work now with a subscription, and with enough support print versions might be a possibility in the future for our top series.

The site launches today, October 15th, with four launch titles. Which of these titles would you say is your favorite and why?

I will give a biased answer here and say My Little Sister Can Read Kanji, which is the title I am translating myself.  This might seem to be the most inane novel we licensed, but it's actually a really deep satire of the state of the light novel business itself.  It's also just hilarious.  The main character is a complete idiot (not just the usual "stupid when it comes to relationships"... more like a complete and utter idiot), and his smart little sister is a great foil. I'd almost compare it to "Idiocracy", except for moe.

You mentioned in the release that on top of the first four launch titles, there will be additional announcements throughout the next few months. What should we expect from J-Novel Club in the future?

More series!  We have 6+ more titles to announce, and we'll be rolling them out over the next few weeks.  There's magical battles, other worlds, harems, serious hard-core fantasy, crazy superpowers, and of course plenty of fanservice, too.  We've got something for everyone!

J-Novel Club promises weekly updates on all of its licensed series, something I’m certain will keep your translators busy. Could you tell us a little bit more about your process with these releases, such as the selection of which ones to license?

I have been a translator in the anime industry for years working on simulcasts, and we've applied a lot of the same working style as that.  By focusing on timely weekly releases, we can really make sure that translation pace is consistent which enables us to keep up quality while still going at a fast pace for our readers.  Every book has a translator/editor team, with a third party checker, and before going to the final ebook there will be another round of checking/typesetting. We think our quality and the quality of our translations themselves will be at the top of the industry, and I hope to be able to define what a "good" light novel translation is.

You mentioned on top of a $4.50 per month tier for an annual membership that there would be a premium membership as well with additional benefits. To whom would you recommend each tier and why? Do you have any details on the pricing for the premium membership?

If you like like novels and want to enjoy reading them, become a J-Novel Club Member (either monthly or annually), and read tons of releases every week.  If you find that you'd like to own the series, consider upgrading your membership to Premium Membership for $10 a month (annually), which nabs you a free ebook credit every month, which saves you $1.49 off the retail price.  And you can also get inside info from the translation teams and staff on our Premium Members forum!

It was also mentioned that digital collectible copies of completed volumes would be offered for individual sale on digital platforms such as Amazon. What is the likely pricing for these books, and what makes them collectible-quality?

Our books are already available for pre-order on Amazon (and soon Kobo and iBooks), and the list price is $6.99 in the US. Prices in other countries may vary due to currency calculations and restrictions set by the retailers.

Our ebooks will be fully typeset, include all the original illustrations, and be worthy of being on someone's digital bookshelf!

Do you have any plans for potential physical releases in the future?

At this time, we do not have any concrete plans.  But in the future if there is enough demand for our series, we are interested in exploring options to produce a print version in some manner.  We currently only have digital distribution rights, however.

As the first company to fill this niche of a digital light novel subscription service, what sort of growth in readership and sales do you envision in the near future, and how does this affect your strategy going forward?

It is very difficult to make predictions for a brand new business category like this.  I think the biggest hurdle will be to get the word out to as many people as possible, and at the same time prove our quality and consistency of releases, and then we will go from there!

We aren't funded by big venture capital, so there is a certain amount of support we will need to be able to continue in the short term, but I am confident that the fans will support this effort to bring more official high quality translations of light novels to the world!

As a closing question, is there anything else you’d like to say to Taykobon readers?

Curious about what this is?  Start reading!  I think you'll already find a series you won't be able to put down.  I want J-Novel Club to grow into an active, vibrant community of readers, and look forward to getting to know you all!

Thank you for your time, and congratulations on the new service!

There was quite a bit of information in the interview. For starters, it seems like physical releases of J-Novel Club series are not something likely to appear any time soon, which is  understandable considering the new niche the company is attempting to carve for itself with digital distribution. As Mr. Pinansky said himself, the companies releasing print versions of light novels only release a few new series a year due to great financial risk of such ventures. While it is great for physical release fans to see these books, it definitely hinders the number of series released in the market. J-Novel Club has the opportunity to move past this barrier, and the company definitely seems eager, considering the fact that they are already in talks with several other Japanese publishers.

I have already sampled the iOS app, and I could definitely feel the appeal of a service that offers weekly updates to licensed translations. This is especially the case when I consider the fact that many of these series would likely never have been released in the West otherwise. There's a palpable excitement in the fandom already at the prospect of a light novel streaming service, and hopefully J-Novel Club will be able to capitalize on it. I certainly would like to see more light novels getting official English translations, and I'm sure many of you would, too.